What Is The Difference Between Mobility & Flexibility?Mar 20, 2020
A few years ago, I was a full-time yoga teacher in chronic pain.
My deep sense of shame stopped me from talking about it, but inside I felt like a fraud. Every time I stepped to the front of the room to guide a group of students, I second guessed myself. When I contemplated rolling out my mat at home, I avoided it. I didn’t know what was causing my physical pain, but surely my yoga practice contributed. And if that was the case, was it okay for me to guide a group of people through a series of movements that I was no longer bought into?
I didn’t want to abandon my yoga practice, but I also didn’t want to be in pain. Cue dark nights of the soul.
At some point, it dawned on me that I knew a lot about yoga poses, but I didn’t know much about human movement. All of my movement training took place within the context of yoga, and not the other way around. I realized that if I wanted a practice that helped my body work and feel better as I aged, I needed to shift my priorities and start educating myself beyond the scope of yoga.
The Learning Period
So I did what any self-starter would do in that moment: I poured myself into studies, research and experimentation. I expanded the pool of people I learned from to include physical therapists, psychologists, strength trainers, biomechanists, pilates teachers, martial artists, and anyone with a body with something to teach.
I filled my brain to the max with disparate points of views that created enough cognitive dissonance to motivate me to put together a narrative that held space for everything I was learning. I started breaking down the high level platitudes people toss out, like, “passive stretching is bad” into more nuance, asking myself follow-up questions like, “In what instances would passive stretching be bad for an individual, and in which cases would it be useful?”.
Slowly, I started to piece together a language and philosophy of human movement that made sense to me, and that, more importantly, helped my chronic pain as I put it into practice. I could see it helping other people, too, as my conversations with students after yoga classes became more sophisticated and substantial. Margaret’s hips were working better, and she could now walk her dogs for three miles in the mornings, which she hadn’t been able to do for years. Mary’s practice was progressing faster than it had in years, to her sweet surprise.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot of things that have helped me tremendously in building up a movement practice that meets my body’s and brain’s needs.
Something that’s been incredibly useful to me has been understanding movement nutrients. Movement nutrients are the different components of human movement that added together, create a movement diet. The same way that we learn about carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins, we need to learn about the various nutritional components of human movement. This is subjective terminology, so it may be possible to find someone else talking about this concept in a different way, but as far as I’m concerned, movement nutrients consist of:
Depending on whose definitions you come across, each of these things may be defined quite differently. You can read more about how I define each different movement nutrient in another one of my articles, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus primarily on flexibility and mobility.
Mobility vs. Flexibility
The words flexibility and mobility are words that I often hear used interchangeably. And yet, these terms are different words for a reason. They actually refer to different aspects of our range of motion, specifically how our range of motion is created.
Let’s get into the difference between mobility and flexibility.
Mobility refers to the range of motion we are able to control using our strength. It requires muscle contraction in order to generate movement.
In other words, mobility refers to our active range of motion. Active means we generate movements utilizing our strength, and is contrasted with passive range of motion, which is another way to think about flexibility.
Flexibility refers to the range of motion we are able to endure utilizing gravity, leverage or momentum. A relaxed muscle put on a stretch is experiencing flexibility.
Generally speaking, we have more flexibility than we have mobility. This makes sense: We are able to endure more than we’re able to control. Our flexibility creates the slack that our mobility tries to fill.
Mobility vs. Flexibility: Which One Is King?
Flexibility and mobility are both important movement nutrients. We need to be able to withstand various ranges of motion.
For instance, we need our ankle to be flexible enough that it can trip over a rock and pronate to a deeper degree than we would be able to create with our strength. This helps us stay adaptable to our ever-changing environments and the challenges we’ll inevitably brush up against in the world.
But we also need good mobility. Our ankle will have a better shot of bouncing back and avoiding a strain if we’ve actively trained pronation and have a high degree of control in the joint. Having a lot of trained mobility helps us avoid potential injuries (which usually happen in the ranges of motion we can endure but not control).
In fact, it’s mobility that makes our brain feel safe about our environment. Knowing that it can control the body’s movement, our nervous system is primed to feel safer and to permit more daring levels of adventure.
As a general rule, we should train both our mobility and our flexibility, with the goal of bridging the gap between our active and passive ranges of motion. Training in this way minimizes the risk of injury and maximizes communication from our tissues to our brain that says: I am safe, I am capable, I can endure whatever chaos I come across.
Mobility & Flexibility in Yoga
Here’s where I can circle back to my own story with chronic pain. Because I didn’t understand movement nutrients or how to balance them in my movement diet, I overemphasized flexibility and neglected mobility in my yoga practice. My muscles and joints were capable of withstanding many pretzel-like shapes, but if you were to unthread my foot from my hip crease in a lotus pose, it would have no strength to hold the position on its own, and would simply unravel back to a neutral position. I was all flash and no substance.
Over time, the imbalance between the nutrients grew to the point that I was experiencing chronic pain. My body was crying out to me to stop stretching the bejeezus out of my hamstrings, and start using them to actively control the movements of my legs and hips.
This phenomenon is common in yoga. The nature of a fast-paced yoga class makes it easier for us to utilize gravity, leverage and momentum to create end-range positions, rather than recruiting the strength of our muscles. We use the floor as leverage to cultivate overhead arm reach in downward facing dog. We utilize gravity in Warrior 2 to sink into the hip joints. We rely on momentum in plank pose to lower down to the floor.
Many people begin their yoga journey to regain flexibility, which is a great goal, but too often that turns into a practice that overemphasizes one nutrient at the expense of the others. If your movement diet consists of more than yoga, and you are careful to include all of the nutrients you need for your body to feels its best, then by all means: use yoga to hammer away at your flexibility.
But let’s be clear: Mobility is an equally needed nutrient in our diet. In fact, if I were in some sort of desert island scenario and I could only select one movement nutrient for the rest of my life, mobility would win over flexibility every time. And here’s why: I’d rather be in control. My body and my mind feel better about a future full of unknowns with some grit built into the system.
Who We Are
If you’re ready to start training some highly purposeful mobility with your yoga practice, you’re in the right place. My name is Brentan and I’ve been teaching yoga for 10 years. My practice and teachings were very conventional for about 7 years until I started experiencing injuries and chronic pain from a practice that was not totally well-balanced for what my body needed. These days, I ensure my yoga practice is nutritional and covers all the bases needed to progress in strength, mobility and stability.
I live in San Diego on a beautiful hilltop with my hubby, Oli, by my side who loves my approach to not-real-yoga. I teach online for free on YouTube and Instagram, and connect with my online community every week with Weekly Letters full of movement stories, inspiration and direction. I invite you to like, follow, subscribe and share my platforms with the important people in your life. We’ve helped hundreds of people come back from pain and injuries, and restore better-feeling movement to their everyday lives. If that’s not the purpose of yoga embodied, I don’t know what is.
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